Right Where You Belong
We are a nation of frequent movers, and yet a growing body of research shows that the more rooted we are in our communities, the better we feel and the more successful we’ll be, especially in times of crisis.
By Melody Warnick published July 5, 2016 - last reviewed on December 20, 2020
The Excel spreadsheet that 40-year-old Ben Bristoll made as he was deciding where to move after living in upstate New York for 18 years was exhaustive. It catalogued 38 communities, cross-checked against the qualities Bristoll considered most vital: Low cost of living. Proximity of family. Number of vegan restaurants. Prevalence of Lyme disease.
For a while, Harrisonburg, Virginia, looked particularly promising. So did Burlington, Vermont. Then one January day, Bristoll found himself riding his bike on the greenways of Roanoke, Virginia, in weather warm enough for a T-shirt. Okay, you got me, Ben thought. He moved to town in 2012 and has had no regrets.
The idea that picking up and starting over somewhere fresh could lead to living happily ever after is a narrative many of us trust. Every year, around 12 percent of the nation’s population moves, largely for sensible, bank-account-enhancing reasons like a new job or a lower cost of living. As restless in employment as we are in geography, we switch workplaces about every four and a half years, chasing new gigs around the country. And recent college graduates are more likely than previous generations to pick the place they want to live and find a job once they get there.
There’s a growing sense, supported by new research, that geography influences all the basic facts of our lives, from income to relationships to physical health. Each of the five times I’ve moved cross-country, from Utah to Maryland to Utah to Iowa to Texas, and most recently to Blacksburg, Virginia, I’d had solid motives like jobs and schooling. Yet I’d also allowed myself to indulge the wild hope that somehow the new place would complete me. When it didn’t, at least not in the expected ways, I’d be crippled by geographic Fear of Missing Out, a vague dread that someplace better existed in the world and I didn’t live there. Clicking through Realtor.com listings was my mid-thirties suburbanite version of crystal meth—a filthy habit I couldn’t quit. “This is the last time,” I’d tell myself, and then I’d creep online again to ogle Victorians in Corvallis, Oregon or cut-rate bungalows in Lawrence, Kansas.
In imagining myself living anywhere but here, I was ignoring the fact that humans are instinctively driven to form connection with places. “To be rooted,” philosopher Simone Weil once wrote, “is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.”
In 1947, the poet W. H. Auden coined the term topophilia—from the Greek topos, or “place”—to describe the sense of being connected to one’s environment.
Biologists, anthropologists, sociologists, and urban planners who study how and why we put down roots call this phenomenon place identity, geopiety, person-place bonding, environmental embeddedness, or at-homeness. I prefer the phrase place attachment, which suggests the affectionate, almost familial relationship that can form between a person and where he or she lives. It means feeling at home in a place.
Place attachment is emotionally satisfying because humans long for a sense of belonging. But it can also make life better. When we’re happy where we live and fond of the people who live around us, we’re less anxious, less likely to suffer heart attacks or strokes, and less likely to complain about ailments.
In a study conducted in Tokyo, elderly Japanese women who felt attached to their neighborhood were more likely to be alive five years later than were women who didn’t care one way or another about their communities. For women who liked where they lived and also interacted with neighbors, their chance of survival compared to more ambivalent residents increased by 6 percent.
Other research has linked place attachment to a general sense of well-being. Studies show that when you compare Stayers—long-term residents of a place—with chronic Movers, the Stayers are generally far more social. They’re more likely to volunteer or, say, help the environment by buying a habitat preservation license plate. A study by biologists and anthropologists at Harvard, Princeton, and Binghamton University found, unsurprisingly, that teens who didn’t move around a lot had more friends.
Loving the place we live benefits us, but being loved by residents is also vital for cities and towns. In a multiyear study, Gallup and the Knight Foundation, a nonprofit group that promotes community engagement, surveyed 26,000 residents of 26 American communities from Boulder, Colorado, to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, about how much they loved where they lived. The results revealed that even during the height of the Great Recession, the happier residents were with their town, the more the town prospered economically.
Researchers who measure place attachment don’t try to gauge the objective magnificence of a city—the majesty of its skyscrapers and public art or the leafy depths of its parks. That would be like measuring a couple’s love for each other by posting their photos on HotorNot.com. Instead, scientists study residents’ emotions by asking whether or not their town feels like home.
Gertie Moore, for instance, has lived all of her 72 years in unincorporated Lorado, West Virginia, shifting every few years a couple of houses closer to the highway where the coal trucks rumble past.
“You’ve lived on the same street your whole life?” I asked her.
“Yep. They named the road after me, because everybody knows Gertie.”
Moore is among the 37 percent of Americans who still live in their hometown, and as odd as that instinct seems to me, there is something noble in the way she presides over Lorado, surrounded by people to whom she’s made herself useful. She knows everyone in a 10-mile radius—the now-grown children who once rode her school bus, the neighbor she took to Walmart to buy fabric for quilting. And most of her extended family live nearby.
In his book Who’s Your City? demographer Richard Florida divides people into three categories—the mobile, the stuck, and the rooted. “We tend to focus on the first two: the mobile, who can pick up and move to opportunity, and the stuck, who lack the resources to leave where they are,” Florida says. “But we cannot forget about the rooted—those who have the means and opportunity to move, but choose to stay.”
Forty years ago, when Moore was a young mother whose husband worked in the coal mines, a coal slurry dam collapsed a few miles up the hollow, unleashing a wall of viscous black water into the company towns below. The Buffalo Creek flood killed 113 people in the valley and washed away countless homes. And yet Moore never considered moving away. Her roots were too deep.
Staying is a hallmark of people who are place attached. When you’re truly rooted in your town, you’re not busy plotting the next move. You likely believe that where you live is the best possible spot for you. Local catastrophes, then, sometimes have the counterintuitive effect of cementing place loyalty into something fiercer and more protective.
I was living in Iowa on April 16, 2007, when a student named Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 Virginia Tech University students and faculty members on a sunny spring morning in Blacksburg, Virginia. Before the incident, which was the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, I had never heard of the town. Afterward everyone had heard of Blacksburg; the tragedy defined the community outside its borders. Years later, when we told people that my husband was taking a job at Virginia Tech, the incident was the first thing they mentioned. Some feared for our saftey.
And yet, I’d been told by people who had lived in Blacksburg then that the violence of April 16 had fostered a sense of collectiveness and connection. Residents were more tender with each other. “You could be at the grocery store and somebody would burst into tears, and everyone understood why, and somebody would give them a hug,” one friend has told me.
Many towns have endured tragedies, but the devastation is often mitigated by the effects of place attachment. After a nuclear reactor exploded in Chernobyl, Ukraine, in April 1986, emitting 400 times the radiation released by the Hiroshima atomic bomb, area residents were ordered to evacuate—forever. More than 130,000 left and never returned, as their 12th-century village decayed into a ghost town of weeds and lingering toxicity.
And yet a few hundred residents—mostly elderly women, or babushkas in Russian—defied official orders and returned to live as subsistence farmers. Ostensibly, everything in the 19-mile exclusion zone around Chernobyl was poison. Officials warned against eating the carrots and radishes the women planted in their own backyards or drinking the milk that came from their goats and cows. The babushkas did so anyway, having decided they’d rather live five happy years near the graves of their ancestors than 10 miserable ones in a sterile Kiev high-rise.
Holly Morris, director of the documentary The Babushkas of Chernobyl, heard the women explain their philosophy this way: “If you leave, you die. All those who left died.” And in fact, anecdotal evidence accumulated about Chernobyl residents who had agreed to relocate only to pass away within a few years, much sooner than those who had returned. There’s been no official count, and exposure to radiation would be a key variable for both groups, but the people who moved back to the exclusion zone believe they are outliving their uprooted former neighbors by some 10 years. The babushkas explained to Morris that the transplants were “dying of sadness.”
Up against the powerful emotions of place attachment, logic and probability hold little sway. In one study of 700 low-income women who moved to new cities after Hurricane Katrina, Penn State sociologist Corina Graif found that the neighborhoods they had relocated to boasted higher median family income, more employed people, and lower poverty than the ones they left. And yet one field study of Ninth Ward residents who evacuated to Houston after Katrina found that more than half preferred to return to New Orleans afterward, despite the larger city’s demonstrably better quality of life; 69 percent of this group agreed with the statement, “New Orleans is home.”
The connections that make a city home can save lives during disasters. While studying the tsunami that killed more than 18,000 people in Japan in March 2011, Daniel Aldrich, a professor of political science, public policy, and urban affairs at Northeastern University and the author of Building Resilience, found that in most parts of the country, some 40 minutes elapsed between the undersea earthquake and the arrival of 30-foot waves. Yet death rates in the 133 affected coastal cities, towns, and villages varied from zero to almost 10 percent.
To explain the disparity, Aldrich and Yasuyuki Sawada, a University of Tokyo economics professor, looked at factors like the average age of residents, the presence of seawalls, and the height of the tsunami when it hit land. Ultimately, though, those physical elements couldn’t account for the varying survival rates. What did? Each town’s level of social capital.
Forty minutes was enough time for the able-bodied to travel the two or three kilometers from the lowest houses near the ocean to the highest point in town. But it was not always enough time for the sick, elderly, infirm, disabled, or wheelchair-bound to do so. Individuals from these groups who survived told Aldrich’s team that a friend, neighbor, caregiver, or family member aided them. That implied two things: First, someone knew that a disabled person lived in a certain house and needed help. “If you don’t know someone is there, you’re not going to bother knocking,” Aldrich says.
Second, the helper was willing to endanger his or her own life to save someone else’s. No one knew how soon the tsunami would crash into the shore. Ferrying an elderly or disabled person uphill requires time. Most people wouldn’t bother unless they had an existing social connection strong enough to merit that kind of consideration. “You can’t build that during the disaster,” Aldrich says. “You have to do this before the disaster strikes.”
Aldrich calls this the Mr. Rogers approach to disaster preparedness and recovery—“Won’t you be my neighbor?” The effects have been visible in other places. The communities that recovered fastest after Superstorm Sandy walloped the East Coast in 2012 had the strongest social resources before the storm—measured as a combination of place-attachment factors like social cohesion, helping behaviors, and trust.
Any infrastructure that promotes social connection can enhance this kind of community resilience, Aldrich says—wide front porches that invite extended communal rocking, shared gathering spaces like parks, and greenbelts where neighbors can cross paths. So can simple social behaviors like attending community festivals, joining a neighborhood knitting club, or worshiping at the same synagogue every week. Such solutions are relatively easy and inexpensive, and Aldrich argues that they’re as essential as building seawalls.
To foster attachment, your town doesn’t need to be the platonic ideal of a city, just as you don’t have to be particularly gorgeous, clever, or wealthy to love and be loved by others. You can adore a town that everyone else hates and still accrue the physical, emotional, and social benefits of place attachment. Your town just has to make you happy. When it does, you want to stay.
According to anthropologist Setha Low and psychologist Irwin Altman, both pioneering place-attachment researchers, place attachment is emotion and belief combined with action or behavior. It’s the way we imbue places with meaning and memory. And it’s a process. Learning this after I moved to Blacksburg suggested to me that loving my town, and feeling more rooted, here and now, was something I could do. Simple things like walking more, getting to know my neighbors, volunteering, and exploring nature could increase how at home I felt.
Loving where you live may not be as paramount in the grand scheme of happiness measures as, say, a terrific marriage, a job you adore, or a positive relationship with your teenager. Yet marriages and jobs and child rearing all happen somewhere. They belong to a particular place. For good or ill, places form the landscape of our daily lives, and it makes sense that becoming more satisfied with the where of your life could have positive trickle-down effects for the who, what, and how.
My childhood friend Jen, who as an Army wife knows a thing or two about moving, told me, “It is an incredibly conscious decision to love where you live. I have seen so many families become miserable because they hate where they are when they move to a new place. You have to choose to love it.”
I chose yes.
How To Love The Place You Live
BEFRIEND YOUR NEIGHBORS. One study found that people who felt connected to their neighbors reported more positive emotions, fewer physical ailments, and fewer daily stressors.
EAT LOCAL FOOD. Of residents who join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), shop at a farmers’ market, or buy produce from a locally owned store, 77 percent rate their community as “excellent” or “good.” Only 64 percent of conventional shoppers agree.
WALK MORE. Walking is the most effective way to develop your sense of local geography—and former car commuters who start walking to work experience as great a happiness boost as if they’d gotten a raise or fallen in love.
VOLUNTEER. Among similar communities, those with more nonprofit groups maintained lower unemployment rates during the recession. Volunteerism and philanthropy may increase place attachment, making people more likely to invest, spend, and hire locally.
Adapted from THIS IS WHERE YOU BELONG: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live by Melody Warnick, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2016 by Melody Warnick.
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